Are Germans’ Views on Crime all that Distinctive?

I’m doing research on Germans’ views on criminal justice at the moment, and I thought I’d share a few interesting facts. You sometimes hear Germans say things like "we Germans" are against the death penalty or that "Germany" is against the death penalty. And, in fact about 50-55% of Germans currently say they are are opposed  to the death penalty when they are given the abstract question "Are you for or against the death penalty?"  About 25-35% state that they are in favor, according to most recent polls. 

However, as with all polling questions, the specific phrasing is critical, as are the "national mood" and press coverge just before the poll. An example: on page 9 of this paper, a criminologist from the University of Kiel relates a 1996 poll which featured the following three questions:

Are you basically for or against the death penalty?

Are you for the death penalty for someone who commits the sexual murder of a child, or are you against the death penalty in all cases?

Are you for the death penalty when someone abducts and murders another person, or are you against the death penalty in all cases?

The answers were:

For the death penalty in general: 37%

For the death penalty for sexual murders of children: 60%

For the death penalty for murder after abduction: 50%

This is not surprising; ncreased support for the death penalty when survey respondents are asked about a horrible kind of crime is always higher than support for the death penalty in the abstract. The late 1990s saw a large increase in punitive sentiment in German society (including a 13-point rise in support for capital punishment).  Support for capital punishemnt has gone down since then, but nevertheless, a 2007 survey reveals that 86% of Germans would like to see those convicted of molesting children locked up for life (G).

I suspect that ordinary Germans have ideas about criminal justice that are not that far removed from citizens in other countries.  There is a dramatic difference in support for the death penalty between Germany and some of its neighbors to the East.  However, that difference in support would probably be reduced if you asked questions about specific kinds of very serious crimes, as was done in the 1996 poll.  Put another way, 35% of Germans and 70% of Poles might say they favor the death penalty in the abstract, because the average German probably associates capital punishment with George W. Bush or China. But when you focus their attention on the latest Lustmord that dominated headlines in their neighborhood newspaper, average Germans and Poles will probably begin to think a bit more alike.

Oh, and one other interesting fact. According to the 1998-2002 Allensbacher Institute public-opinion research yearbook, (p.677), the political party whose members are most likely to support capital punishmment are…the post-Communist PDS (42%). Go figure.

4 thoughts on “Are Germans’ Views on Crime all that Distinctive?

  1. This is an interesting thought, even though it is less surprising when you think about it a little: Least people feel obliged to acquaint themselves with abstract ethical and moral issues but everyone can put in one’s two cents when there is a new child murder in the focus of the public debate. But in fact the abstract and the very concrete issues are not to be contemplated on seperately. And of course if you ask the man on the street suggestive question such as: Would you favor death penalty for the murderer of one of your family members, it is higly plausible that he would answer with yes. The more concrete the question the likelier is such an answer. That reminds me of the classic scenario for conscientious objectors where you are cross-examined by a commission in order to find out whether you are really a pacifist (“imagine your girlfriend is being raped and coincidentally you have a gun with you…”).
    But the thing is that there is not difference between the overall abstract and the concrete question. Not everybody is able to see that and that is why I am happy to live in an representative democracy, where the tyranny of the majority is softened by its deputies, to speak with Tocqueville.

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  2. Interestingly enough, when you talk to Germans who support the death penalty, more often than not it isn’t just the Altnazis (which have been a dying breed for decades anyway) or Altkommunisten who propagate capital punishment for capital crime. Ordinary people here may tell you “…if he had done that to my child, I would want the death penalty for him…” and so on.

    That in mind, it is ironic that many point fingers at the death penalty in the United States as yet more proof that our legal system here is superior and more developed, in any case more worthy of post-modern humanist 21st century society, which has presumably left its barbaric age behind for good. And let us not forget that while no death sentence has been carried out in most of what is now the European Union for often well over 30 years, countries like France did not formally codify the abolition of the death penalty into national law until 1986 – 14 years after the death penalty was ruled unconstitutional in the United States, even though as we all know it was reinstated there in 1976.

    As for today’s Germany, however, there is much reason to believe – and hope, for that matter – that because of our past, regardless of European law as it is now, there will never really be a broad majority favoring the actual reinstatement of the death penalty. During the latter days of the Third Reich, the death penalty came to be imposed arbitrarily even for minor offenses, and in more recent history, it was seen as emblematic of communist East Germany’s judicial system, devoid of due process of law and fair trial. In public discourse, therefore, any open proposal by a political party, extremist fringe groups aside, would amount to political suicide.

    Cleverly phrased poll questions like these do not help build a case either for or against a new death penalty either; their merit is merely that of shock value which never transcends “an eye for an eye” rationale, on the latter of which no modern government can afford to base its moral reasoning.

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  3. Nice comment, observant.

    As I think AH has noted here before, when the issue of capital punishment is elided into issues of race and ethic background, the questions become all the more distorted if asked in a distinctly racialized or otherwise characterizing manner. Contrast:

    (a) if your daughter were raped and then smothered by a drunk German med student at a party, would you seek the death penalty?

    with

    (b) if your daughter were raped by a Turkish gang member high on crack and thrown into a river, would you seek the death penalty?

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  4. Putting aside the encomium to Tocqueville and the notion that representative goverment replicates the difference between concrete and abstract thinking, Hannes B is spot on. Opposing the death penalty in general is for many a matter of moral principle. The questions about Lustmord, furthermore,don’t expose a misunderstanding by focusing the respondent’s attention on particulars. The conversational setting in which these questions are asked are senselessly accusatory,”You really don’t find child rape that horrific?” A contrast is easily drawn between polls that ask about attitudes, say, toward all “socialized medicine” about which confusion has been assiduously sowed. Particular questions, such as, “What about government funded health services for the elderly poor” reveal that opposition may be based on a misunderstanding about what the abstraction means.

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